The US Department of Defense wants to get a nuclear-powered spacecraft into space by 2025.
On Monday, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded contracts to three companies—General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin—to develop the nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) technology necessary to boost a rocket out of low-earth orbit. The awards are part of the agency’s Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO) program.
“The NTP technology we seek to develop and demonstrate under the DRACO program aims to be foundational to future operations in space,” said Maj. Nathan Greiner, program manager for DRACO, in a press release.
Currently, spacecrafts are either powered by electric or chemical propulsion systems, and the DRACO team sees drawbacks to both of these methods. Electric systems have lower thrust-to-weight ratios, while chemical systems struggle with propellant efficiency.
“Current on-orbit propulsion systems are limited in how quickly they are able to cross large distances,” Greiner said in an email to Motherboard. “This prohibits the current on-orbit propulsion systems from being able to conduct timely maneuvers in the vast distances between GEO [geosynchronous equatorial orbit] and the Cislunar [between the Earth and moon] regime.”
The DRACO program hopes that the nuclear-powered system could match the best of both technologies—the high thrust-to-weight ratios of chemical propulsion and the high propellant efficiency of electric systems—to move much faster over longer distances.
Making a faster, more efficient spacecraft serves the Department of Defense goal of “rapid maneuver” in cislunar space.
Phase 1 of the DRACO program will last 18 months and consist of two tracks. Track A involves the design of the nuclear reactor itself, and will be General Atomics' responsibility. According to CNBC, this contract is worth $22.2 million.
Track B focuses on developing spacecraft designs. Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin will take on this challenge, with contracts worth $2.5 million and $2.9 million respectively, according to CNBC.
Lockheed Martin and General Atomics are familiar names with long histories in the defense industry. Blue Origin, on the other hand, was founded by Bezos in 2000 and is focused on space exploration and colonization, as well as commercial opportunities. This contract is their latest in a series of projects, including a reusable rocket and one designed for space tourism.
When Phase 1 is up in 2022, DRACO plans to work towards demonstrating that a nuclear-powered rocket can get above low-Earth orbit.
“The long-term goals of the DRACO project, after a successful on-orbit demonstration in 2025, will be to enable follow-on higher performing engines for either DoD or NASA use,” Grenier said. While the DoD is focused on fast, agile maneuvers close to Earth, Grenier said that NASA could use the NTP technology to get a crewed mission to Mars.